Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Revisiting Groundhog Day (1993): Cinematic Depiction of Mutative Process

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Revisiting Groundhog Day (1993): Cinematic Depiction of Mutative Process

Article excerpt

Director: Harold Ramis

Cinema, with its capacity to speak to several senses at once, can portray a wide variety of inner experiences. One of these experiences is that of the difficult process of character change, although it might seem unlikely in a medium limited to about 120 minutes of viewing. To do this, the writers, director, and editors manage the elements of time and plot development. Groundhog day, an offbeat comedy that features Bill Murray in a role that foreshadows his later, serious parts, shows us a man trapped by his narcissistic defenses. The device of repetition becomes a representation of developmental arrest and closure from object relatedness. Repetition also becomes a means of escape from his characterological dilemma. The opportunity to redo and learn from experience-in particular, to love and learn through experience with a good object-symbolizes the redemptive, reparative possibilities in every life.

Redemption, the suggestion that we are capable of change despite the fixed quality of character, has been a central concern in western thought. Originally a subject of biblical texts, sermons, and tracts, this theme moved into literature with the advent of the modern novel. In earlier work I termed this theme the therapeutic narrative (Almond and Almond, 1996). Indeed, a radical view of psychoanalysis would be that Freud adopted a literary narrative as the central therapeutic mode of his new science (Bakan, 1958; Rieff, 1966). Film, the emergent art form of the 20th century, searches out the major narrative themes in our culture, among them the therapeutic.

In the paradigm of the therapeutic narrative, a troubled person plays out his/her typical pattern in relation to an other who is more anonymous, a foil who is depicted in idealized and/or mysterious terms. The other becomes an object of desire, often-though not always-in a romantic plot structure. The interactional moves of the protagonist, which reveal his/her characteristic flaws, are met by muted, attenuating responses by the other. The consequence, eventually, is a search for alternative solutions, motivated by a wish to gain love and approval. Through a process of trial and error, the protagonist discovers internal limitations, grieves, and discovers new possibilities. In Groundhog day the other is played by Rita, the producer of a TV weather segment that Murray is sent to broadcast. She is sweet-tempered, and disregards Murray's provocative abrasiveness, maintaining an accepting, positive attitude, but also her self-respect.

Groundhog day is of particular interest to analysts for two reasons. First, it shows us psychological subjectivity-the process of change from a point of view that is particularly valuable-the 'patient's' side. Our current discourse has moved to recognize a two-person mutative process, and most recently the complex interplay of the intrapsychic and the interaction [Beebe and Lachmann, 2001; Process of Change Study Group (PCSG), 1998; Seligman, 1999]. In all this, the least well-described element tends to be the subjective experience of the patient (Lohser and Newton, 1996). Film's capacity to invite us into the subjective experience of the character, while allowing us to observe at the same moment, gives us a perspective on inner experience. Second, Groundhog day has interesting things to say about the phases and incremental nature of change. Its creators have provided a vivid scenario of how narcissistic defenses change (Almond, 2004).

Living the same dreary winter day over and over, despairing of a sign of spring, Bill Murray-Phil, the TV weatherman-is the prototypical narcissist, defending against the depressive emptiness of his life with a bitterness that keeps him in a self-reinforcing, isolated spiral, separating him from others. As Groundhog day opens, he is sent to the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to report on the emergence of the groundhog (also named Phil) to predict if winter will continue another six weeks. …

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